Platform: PS4 Exclusive
Release date: 2015
Until Dawn is a playable horror movie. That's the best way to sum it up. It's a mixture of Friday the 13th, Saw and Heavy Rain.
The adventure starts one year ago in a rambling old converted hotel in the Canadian Rockies. It's now the home of Josh, Hannah and Beth Washington, whose rich movie-director father bought and converted the hotel for his family. Several friends are spending the weekend with the siblings, and a poorly-conceived prank goes very wrong and ends in tragedy.
Cut to a year later. For reasons passing understanding, but necessary because of Movie/Game Logic, the octet of teenagers who survived the year before are getting ready to spend another weekend at the lodge.
The game has ten chapters, each of which more or less represents about an hour. At various points, you control each of the game's eight characters (this happens automatically; you never have a choice about whom you are playing). Things at the lodge start off a bit weird, then get weirder, then get increasingly fucked-up as the evening wears on.
The crazy thing is that your actions determine who survives the night. The game can potentially end with everyone living or everyone dying, but your playthrough will probably fall somewhere in-between.
The cast includes standard teen horror movie types, such as Mike, the ladies' man jock (Brett Dalton), Ashley (Galadriel Stineman) who harbors a secret crush on the sort-of-nerd Chris (Noah Fleiss), the resourceful, athletic heroine Samantha (Hayden Panattiere) and the slightly odd rich kid Josh (Rami Malek of "Mr. Robot").
The most important thing I can say about the game is that the artistic and production teams were serious about this game. It's a quality production all around:
1. Voice Acting: Really, really good. Rock solid, in fact. The game simply wouldn't work without the top-notch vocals (and performance capture) on display.
2. Visuals: The game takes place in and around a sprawling lodge in the snowy mountains. The high-quality gloss of the environments really helped draw me into the story. With the exception of a few sequences that take place in dark ugly tunnels, the areas in the game are consistently fun to explore.
3. Sound: Both ambient sound and musical score are most effective.
But is it scary? Why, yes, yes it is. I admit I cannot take the more hardcore first-person horror games (PT nearly put me in the hospital and it was only an hour long). But this game had me on the edge of my seat a great deal of the time.
A key ingredient to the game's success comes from the fact that I also grew to care about the characters, even the ones who seemed annoying at first. (Hmmm… how early can I make HER die?...) Watching these "kids" (not one of which seemed younger than thirty) continue to work the problem; struggle against the unknown, against injury, against attacks, and continue to search for answers and solutions had a cumulative effect on my empathy for them. By the end, I really did want all of them to survive.
The game tracks every decision you make, however small, and it lets you know when a choice you've made has any effect. At any time, you can check on a character's stats. I'm not sure how much these stats affected any of my outcomes, but they were still fun to keep track of.
The game also has several different types of collectibles. Some flesh-out the story (or, really, stories), some give you a hint about consequences to come or key past events, and some quite literally change the circumstances of the story. (Did you find and pick up the bat?
Oh, and I should mention the strange between-chapter sequences in which an unknown character is being interviewed by an increasingly strange therapist. The less said about this aspect of the game, the better.
When dawn finally does come, it's a relief to see the characters whom you have guided to survival finally get to exhale and be rescued. I felt bad about those I had lost. In fact, I was eager to re-approach the game and see if I could fix the "mistakes" I made the first time around.
Which brings me to the game's Big Problem: What happens after your first playthrough.
On your initial playthrough, the game forces you to live with your choices and your mistakes. There is no reloading; there is no trying again. Fair enough. It ups the stakes.
But even though after you finish the game you have access to the ten chapters individually, you can't apply any changes you make to the ultimate outcome of the story. It's just that chapter you can see change. The ONLY way you can get a new ending is to play the ENTIRE game over again. And since the game doesn't let you speed through anything on the replay, it's easy to lose enthusiasm for the experiment. Particularly when sometimes the live-or-die outcome is predicated on not making a single mistake on a long series of Quick Time Events. One mistake and you're faced with playing several hours of the game over to try again...and you have to sit through every cut scene.
Faced with this situation, my attitude toward my four dead teens went very quickly from, "Must save them!!" to, "Oh, well, they had nice, if short lives. What's my next game??"
This is a huge missed opportunity for the game designers, as being able to tinker with my outcomes could have greatly increased my investment in the story, the characters, and the game in general. I certainly hope that the rumored sequel fixes this problem. Hell, I wish a patch would be developed that would fix the problem in this game. You listening, Supermassive Games?
+ Terrific production values
+ Great premise
+ Very solid voice acting
- Replayability severely hampered by ill-advised design decisions